Question of the Week #18

From Kalee Abella: Has Technology changed the role of professionalism?

This is an excellent question and one that makes me wonder what prompted you to ask it. Technology has changed many things about how we execute our jobs. It’s changed the way we find and are found by clients and the way we interact with them before, during and after a project. Technology has changed the way we research, the way we sketch and the way we produce design, and the way we interact with each other in the workplace. Technology has changed (and is changing) the definition of craft and the definition of design.

Technology, then, has changed everything. But let’s focus on professionalism, specifically, expectations of professional conduct.

The most obvious and significant of these fall into two broad categories: speed and access.

When I first started practicing professionally we rarely used email to communicate with clients (and even more rarely with vendors). Most business was conducted in person which usually meant traveling to the client’s office with printouts, comps or boards (and a good notebook). We went to clients out of respect for their time. Occasionally they’d come to us, but usually because they just wanted to get out of the bank or the law office they worked in and spend some time in a creative environment. Being prepared to present boards at the client’s offices meant we had to plan in advance. Print, proof, print again, trim, mount, then schlep yourself over there. As an intern I sometimes spent half a day just trimming and mounting layouts for a presentation.

When we wrote up print specs, we’d print them out and fax them to the printer. Sometimes we’d get a return fax with their estimate in as little as 24 hours. Amazing.

The consequence of all this was that it took a lot longer to get anything done than it does today. Everything took more time, more effort and more resources. Jobs took longer to complete and involved more people. Clients understood (by and large) that time cost money and so had a more direct understanding of fees and the costs of production. They were also more patient. A client might call, be told you were out or in a meeting, and expect a call back later that day or perhaps the next morning. Today I have clients send an email and start freaking out if 1/2 an hour goes by before they get a response. I wrote a little about these changing expectations in a previous post on work/life balance.

Because technology now enables us to do more work in less time, there is an expectation that people, business and creativity will move at the speed of that technology. Failure to do so is increasingly being viewed as unprofessional. I wonder though, if that’s a reasonable expectation. There’s a great line from Mad Men in which Don Draper explains, “You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” Back when I was trimming spreads and inhaling spray mount for hours at a time I used that time to reflect and think and scheme and talk casually with other designers in the office. Nowadays we prosecute nearly all aspects of our job with a single tool; whenever one task is done, there is another waiting in a window behind it.

At my first design job, the office manager or intern answered the phone. He or she would be asked if a particular employee was available, and in turn would ask if they could tell whomever the caller was trying to reach what the call was regarding. Consequently, I almost never received personal calls. That simple formality of having to ask someone to route your call and the accountability of having to declare your intentions caused people to be more conscious of their communication. If you were calling for personal reasons, calling on an office line drew attention to the fact that you were prioritizing your personal interests over the work interests of the person you were calling (and the people relying on them).

Today, nearly everyone has a little black shim stuffed with technology sitting next to them on their desk—ringing and buzzing and dinging and chirping and lighting up all day long. Many have come to accept this as an inevitable outcome of technology. Just as we move faster because we can, now we reach out to each other incessantly…because we can. I may be one of the few who views the unrelenting stream of texts and IMs and tweets and updates that infiltrate the workday as blatantly unprofessional. They’re unproductive, distracting, intrusive and (usually) unnecessary. But, like time, there is a subtler consequence to our attentiveness to the pervasive solar wind of communicative bits and bytes, one that supersedes conventions of etiquette or professionalism:

“The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow…This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters. meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.”

Though these words could easily have been written today, they were penned by Anaïs Nin in her diaries sometime between 1944 and 1947. Oddly prescient and uncomfortably close to the truth, Nin’s warning reminds us of the great privilege of human intimacy, the value of face-to-face interaction and importance of truly being in the place where you are. Every glance at incoming text is a gesture that confirms to those around you that you’re willing to tolerate them for the time being, but that you leave room—hope, perhaps—for the possibility that someone or something more interesting may be just a text away.